More than a feeling – fake news and the row over animal sentience

Picture via Rob Oxley

After days of anguished Facebook posts, it transpired that Environment Secretary Michael Gove did know that animals are sentient.

This is a surprising move from this obviously vicious and cruel animal hater.

Picture via Rob Oxley

However, this only happened after thousands of people claimed that the Conservatives voted to say they did not believe in animal sentience. The incident is a fascinating study in how seemingly innocuous issues can catch the public imagination. Remember the protests a few years ago against privatising forests? How about the more recent outcry over the chlorine-washed chickens that we are all supposedly going to have to eat after Brexit?

In times of seeming chaos and upheaval, people cling on to odd, tangible, things. Sometimes this thing is negative, sometimes it is happy. Often it involves animals. If you don’t believe me, ask Fiona the Hippo.

Spreading the animal sentience myth

There are two interesting elements to all of this. The first, obviously, centres around fake news. This story spread quickly across both mainstream news outlets and social media. Celebrities latched onto it (and have subsequently apologised). As is all too often the case, nobody bothered to fact check the story they were sharing.

In my book, I cite a 1977 report by the academics Lynn Hasher, David Goldstein and Thomas Toppino. They found that “repeated statements are more likely to be judged as ‘true’ than are similar, non-repeated, statements. They concluded that their research “demonstrated that the repetition of a plausible statement increases a person’s belief in the referential validity or truth of that statement”.

This story seems to be a perfect example of that. People saw the story so many times on social media, it just became accepted as true.

A problem of politics

Then, there is the politics. How on Earth are the Conservatives in a position where anybody could believe that they do not accept animals are sentient and can feel pain? The Times’ Hugo Rifkind sums it up perfectly:

“Gove is right to worry about it, but the problem goes deeper than fake news. For a generation at least, a perception of nastiness has dogged the Conservative Party, and nastiness to animals is the purest form of nastiness. If there is soon to be another election, they need a hearing with Labour voters. They need to make them fear for the economy, doubt the Corbyn/McDonnell partnership, worry that a Labour Brexit would be even more chaotic than their own. Theoretically, it could be done. Nobody is going to listen, though, to some bastard they think would torture a kitten.

This current iteration of the Conservatives might not be the hugging husky type, but they need to think very seriously about why this story was so easy to believe.

If they don’t it will not be the last time fake news puts them in a very difficult position.

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My first book "Not Buying It", looking at post-truth in media and politics, is being published by Unbound

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